By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
“The Sophomore Jinx” is one of the most feared elements in sports for a second-year player, college or pro.
Inexplicably, a calendar page turn seemingly causes all those breaks you got as a rookie to break bad. Call it fate’s reply to beginner’s luck or call it urban legend and simply deny it exists.
Georgia Tech baseball’s sophomore class is doing the latter and has taken the hex a step further. They’ve turned the jinx on its head and have become the jinxers instead of the jinxed.
They’re turning ‘Woe is me’ into ‘Woe is thee.’
“It’s a good class, no question. They’re all kind of in the mix now and we need them,” said head coach Danny Hall. “When we recruited them we thought it was a little bit under-the-radar class but they’ve played well.”
Everywhere you look -- on the infield, in the outfield, in the weekend rotation, out of the bullpen, at the top of the batting order in the middle of the order, at the bottom of the order, weekend, midweek, you name it there’s a sophomore getting the job done.
It starts with pitching. Xzavion Curry, who opened eyes last year as Tech’s Friday night starter, has picked up where he left off. He’s 2-0 in 2018, with a microscopic 1.50 ERA and an opponent’s batting average of .133. He’s allowed two runs and seven hits, with nine strikeouts versus just four walks in 12 innings.
“Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t really know what I would be doing. The hardest thing was probably just adjusting to the role,” said Curry, who will open Tech’s weekend series with University of Illinois-Chicago -- which he shut out over eight shutout innings last season. “When you get used to doing something you get comfortable with it and just let the role play out. I probably felt comfortable (last year), honestly, after the first start. I just had to get the nerves out and realize ‘I’ve been pitching my whole life so this is something that I do.’ As a freshman I was a little nervous every time I went out there on Friday nights but I feel like now I have more confidence. This a team that the coaches will give freshmen an opportunity to play and when you get your opportunity you take it.”
Connor Thomas had his opportunity delayed last year due to academic issues but given a fresh start in 2018, he’s taken full advantage. Thomas also is 2-0, has been lights out, having allowed one run and nine hits, with one walk and 18 strikeouts in 16 innings over three appearances. He needed four innings to surpass his 2017 strikeout total of four, getting five in his ‘18 debut against Minnesota. He’s since re-set his career-high in each of his ensuing starts, K’ing six at Georgia Southern in seven shutout innings, then, whiffing six again versus Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions on Tuesday. Thomas will be moving to the weekend rotation beginning this weekend, looking to douse the Flames on Sunday.
“It’s going to have a lot of excitement. I’m really looking forward to it,” Thomas said. “Just keep it riding, do the best I can every week, keep improving my bullpens, keep working on it and we’ll just see.”
Coming out of the bullpen is righty Andy Archer, who has allowed one unearned run in 5.1 innings in three appearances. He’s 1-0 after a career-best 3.1-scoreless innings in the game two win over Dartmouth last Saturday, has a 0.00 ERA and is holding opponents to a .111 batting average.
Murray, who is consistently hitting out of the two-hole for the first time in his life (he did hit there twice last season), leads all Jacket starters in hitting (.529), on-base percentage (.556), slugging (.794), hits (18), total bases (27) and stolen bases (2 -- he’s 2-for-2). He’s also perfect defensively.
Meanwhile, in only four games (three starts), McCann is hitting .636 (7-for-11), with seven runs scored, with a team-leading four home runs -- three in one game in game two of the doubleheader versus Dartmouth -- 21 total bases, and video game-like .750 on-base and 1.909 slugging percentage numbers. He’s second on the team in walks, a category in which he led the team last year -- one base-on-balls behind team-leader, and fellow sophomore Austin Wilhite.
Murray’s neither surprised at the sophomore class’ success this year nor the fact that the class has been overlooked.
“I think all of us had experience last year and we knew that taking that experience into this year we could be key guys for this team,” he said. “We take pride in building off of last year rather than staying stagnant.
“The class before us came in with a bunch of huge names, like Joey (Bart), Tristin (English) and when Brandt Stallings was here he was a huge name, Carter (Hall), I’m probably missing some other people,” he added. “They were a top-10 nationally ranked class. I think we were in the top 25 but, obviously, coming in after a class that’s in the top 10 you get kind of overshadowed. The rankings are just kind of what they are and you’ve got to come here and produce and do your thing as a class. I think our sophomore class is doing exactly that.”
McCann believes the class’ success is no fluke and is hard-earned.
“I think we have an important role on the team. We’ve all worked hard to get where we are,” he said. “We just try and go out and play the game that we love. I think it’s cool that all of us are good friends and we get to play a lot on this team.
“(Playing last year) helped tremendously just to get our freshman year out of the way so now this year we’re more relaxed and ready to play even harder,” he added. “I could have probably guessed that this would be happening.”
This second year has also been a charm for twins Austin and Nick Wilhite.
Austin, once again the starting shortstop, has continued to shine, while Nick, jumped on his opportunity to start in center field due to injuries.
Austin showed last year that he could play every day at a high level. He earned ACC all-freshman honors and was a first-team freshman all-American selection by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) and a freshman all-American by Collegiate Baseball after starting 54 of 55 games at shortstop.
This season, he’s hitting .324, is one of five Jackets with double-figure hits (11) and ranks among the team’s leaders in both doubles (three) and in total bases (19). He has the second-longest streak of consecutive starts (57), trailing only senior captain, second baseman Wade Bailey. He has four multi-hit games and is hitting .500 (6-for-12) over the last three heading into the weekend.
Familiarity is breeding contempt, amongst opponents, but not necessarily a way to stop him.
“I know this year they’ll be coming in trying to pitch me a little bit differently,” said Wilhite, who has recovered from a broken hamate bone that kept him out of the fall. “I’ve been working on my swing and trying to compensate for how they’re going to be pitching me this year based off what I did last year.”
He’s embraced being a team leader also based off last year.
“Last year I was just a freshman out there having a good year. This year it’s more of a leader role where they look up to me and ask me questions about where to play,” he said. “If they do something wrong, they’ll ask, ‘What should I have done there?’ I have to be able to explain to them, ‘You need to do this,’ because they’re looking up to me to answer those questions.”
Nick has answered the call as next man up in the outfield, stepping up when Carter Hall got hurt. The younger of the twins (by 18 minutes) has made six starts in center field -- one fewer than all last season -- and has flashed the kind of leather that has led Coach Hall to refer to him as “probably one of our best defenders in the outfield.” He’s perfect in the field and even made the ESPN Top 10 plays with his robbery at Georgia Southern (Feb. 20).
He’s proud of how he’s played his role and how the entire class has stepped up.
“I knew last year we were going to be pretty good. We just had upperclassmen that were still in the spots that our class was in,” he said. “Now that our class has a chance to be on the field we have a chance to show what we can really do. I think we can take our baseball team really far.
“I remember last year when I would get in it would be nerve-wracking. Your heart’s racing,” he added. “But it’s the same game that we’ve been playing our whole lives. Now we’re out here just enjoying the game.”